London Riots Now, American Riots Then

Official reaction¬†to the UK riots –¬†from the Cameron government, from the police, but also from the leaders of the other political parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – has been to condemn them as mindless criminality. Similar arguments were made about the urban uprisings in the United States in the 1960s. I remember particularly the view offered by the ultra-conservative political science professor Edward Banfield, that they were ‘a combination of animal spirits and stealing.’

There’s more to it than that, I think.

Let me add right away that I am not in the UK, and I haven’t spoken to anyone who participated. My views are based only on what I have read – most recently this insightful piece from Reuters – and on thinking about what happened here in the US 50 years ago.

Of course the riots were not well planned, and are not likely to achieve any political goals. Nevertheless, it seems clear by now that they were based on real grievances and had real targets. These were basically two:

  1. The police. Well, duh! The whole thing began when the police shot Mark Duggan dead, left it to his family to learn of his death through the news media, and then stonewalled that family and other community members when they came to the police station to seek an explanation – see this piece from the Guardian for details. Many people have said that this contemptuous treatment is typical of the relations between the UK police and urban low-income communities, and particularly with black people.
  2. Chain stores. Yes, people are stealing, and yes, they are stealing things that they want to have and maybe cannot afford. At the same time, the stores they are looting are symbols of oppression – outposts of big corporations which sell shoddy goods for too much money, drain the money out of the community, and don’t put anything back in. Here in America, such looting was driven in part by hatred; I suspect it’s the same there, a view confirmed by some of the interviews in the Reuters articl linked above.

The riots have been suppressed for now, but the problems and the attitudes are still there. If David Cameron insists on treating them purely as a law and order issue, he will fail. Meanwhile, I hope the British left gets out there and steps up its organizing around ways to find real solutions to the problems these riots have highlighted.